…for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
–I Corinthians 15:22.
All will be made alive in Christ? All? All might end up in heaven? Or just Catholics? Or just Protestants? Or just Missouri Synod Lutherans? Or maybe just baptized believers? Or maybe “good people” of any spirituality? Or just those who do good things? Or those who give enough money to charity? Or those who believe the right things?
Rob Bell brings up questions like these and many others in the book we’re reading in my church group, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011). In case you haven’t heard about this book, here’s a preview video (if you are reading this in your email, the YouTube preview is on my blog):
Bell raises important questions about heaven and hell that many Christians secretly wonder about but are afraid to ask. He particularly challenges the types of church-goers who seem to relish the thought of some people being sent to hell. They consider themselves “saved” and righteous, but anyone outside their select group “condemned.” They seem to worship a God who is loving one moment and wrathful the next.
Reading Bell’s book is one thoughtful way to consider how we view Christ-followers of “other groups” (denominations, political parties, that “other choir” at church, etc.), those of other religious groups (Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, etc.), the “merely spiritual,” or those of no particular philosophical or faith adherence. Do we treat them will equal dignity and compassion? Or, as Rob Bell points out, do some of us secretly rejoice to picture certain people in hell? Would Christ our Lord rejoice to see someone be cast into hell? Bell asks, Is this “good news”?
Christians of other centuries have also wrestled with these questions. In the article “Dare We Hope For the Salvation of All?” Greek Orthodox theologian, Bishop Kallistos Ware examines how Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Isaac the Syrian considered the salvation of all people and the restoration of all things in Christ. He also draws material from a variety of others, including Julian of Norwich, C.S. Lewis, and St. Silouan of Mount Athos. (Theology Digest 45:4 (1998); also reprinted in The Inner Kingdom, Vol. 1, pages 193-215).
Like Bell, Bishop Ware is trying to remain true to the immense love of God, while also upholding human free will. My favorite story in the article was about a conversation between St. Silouan and a hermit. St. Silouan was so convinced that hell might not be a forever situation that he actually prayed “for the dead suffering in the hell of separation from God. . . [Saint Silouan] could not bear to think that anyone would languish in ‘outer darkness.'”
When the hermit criticized St. Silouan for this, the holy man said, “Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire–would you feel happy?”
The hermit responded that it would be the condemned person’s own fault.
The holy St. Silouan replied, “love could not bear that…we must pray for all.”
(Quotes above from Saint Silouan the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony, quoted in The Inner Kingdom, page 194).
For Eastern Christians, heaven is less a “me and Jesus” and more of a mystical communion of persons. God is “communal” in the sense that God’s oneness is Trinitarian–and to truly mirror God and be taken into the glory of heaven, the multitude of saints (all God’s beloved people) would need to be included in order for the joy to be complete.
The best way to explain this is to consider that the definition of hell for Russian Christians is two people, tied to each other but back to back. They are with each other but not really one. The opposite of that, heaven, is “face-to-face”: face-to-face intimacy and union not only with God, but with each other.
Saint Silouan didn’t think he could be completely happy in heaven until every last person was there, “face-to-face,” dwelling in glory with God and each other, including every single person.
“Into these things, angels long to search.”
Until next time, Amen!